Favourite Women Filmmakers

I was reading online about the #FavWomanFilmmaker hashtag campaign, to highlight awareness of film directors who are women — still statistically unfavoured by various movie industries, as I’ve certainly been discovering this year. Anyway, as this seems like something everyone should get behind, and as I do love lists (I have a page dedicated to listing all the films by women I’ve seen since I started this blog), I wanted to contribute.

First, though, there are so many women directing excellent films right now, I don’t even know where to begin, and choosing one favourite seems impossible. So in the absence of any better criterion, I’ll start autobiographically.

I grew up in New Zealand, so it’s fair to say that Jane Campion has been pretty inspiring. Her early feature films Sweetie (1990) and An Angel at My Table (1990) are both fantastic, and she has taken up the long-form TV format of the latter recently with Top of the Lake (2013) to quite a bit of success. I’m perhaps less enamoured of The Piano (1993) than most people, but I’ll rep for The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Holy Smoke (1999), In the Cut (2003) or Bright Star (2009) at a moment’s notice. She has a fantastic and consistently excellent body of work.

Still, I can’t leave this at just one, so — using from here a strictly alphabetical ordering system — the other key directors who were putting out films in my early filmgoing years (the 1990s), and who are still active, include:

  • Rakhshan Bani-Etemad: an Iranian director too little of whose output I have seen, but whose Nargess (1992) I adored as much as her recent film Ghesse-ha (Tales, 2014);
  • Catherine Breillat: she has a series of tough-minded explorations of female sexuality, most notably À ma sœur! (Fat Girl, 2001), but I also have fond memories of that same year’s Brève traversée (Brief Crossing), which I must revisit;
  • Claire Denis: seriously guys, Beau travail (1999) is one of the greatest films ever, full stop;
  • Sally Potter: you’ll know many of her more famous works, but I want to highlight the underrated The Tango Lesson (1997).

Looking back to earlier decades, trailblazers in many ways:

  • Chantal Akerman: sadly died just this year, but has a peerless body of work dating particularly to the 1970s with such films as Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (The Meetings of Anna, 1978) and Jeanne Dielman (1975);
  • Dorothy Arzner: had a strong Hollywood career in the 1930s and 1940s with such key works as Dance, Girl, Dance (1940);
  • Vĕra Chytilová: for Sedmíkrásky (Daisies, 1966) if for nothing else (that I’ve seen, and that’s my failing);
  • Danièle Huillet: directed and edited a series of bold and perennially-divisive structuralist works with her husband Jean-Marie Straub, like Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, 1968);
  • Larissa Shepitko: a career cut tragically short, but Voskhozdenie (The Ascent, 1977) should live forever at the top of best-ever lists;
  • Agnès Varda: a key figure in the French nouvelle vague whatever the auteurist male critics may try and suggest.

More recent directors to have caught my attention in a big way have been:

  • Andrea Arnold, a bold stylist of the cinema;
  • Sofia Coppola for her deceptively gaudy Marie Antoinette (2006) and above all The Bling Ring (2013);
  • Josephine Decker, who has a far more delicate touch in many ways, making these weird, evanescent but harshly uncompromising stories about women;
  • Mia Hansen-Løve, who can even make self-involved dudes seems interesting, as in Eden (2014);
  • Kim Longinotto, whose films (like this year’s Dreamcatcher) intersect unapologetically with social justice issues in communities around the world;
  • Sarah Polley, a Canadian actor more recently turned director, with a great feeling for compelling narratives;
  • Kelly Reichardt, whose attention to landscapes and a sense of place has been particularly peerless;
  • Céline Sciamma for her stories of fluid gender identities, particularly Tomboy (2011).

A few directors who urgently need to be making more films:

And finally, some whose names I look back on and wonder whatever happened to their feature film directing careers. I don’t daresay there may have been reasons that extend beyond the contours of industry sexism, and I know some are still active in other media, but it’s still a pity. Unless of course it turns out they’re still going strong in which case, hey distributors, WTF?

  • Carine Adler Under the Skin (1997)
  • Allison Anders Grace of My Heart (1996)
  • Sadie Benning some fine short films in the 1990s like Flat Is Beautiful (1999)
  • Lidia Bobrova V toy strane… (In That Country, 1998)
  • Émilie Deleuze Peau neuve (New Dawn, 1999)
  • Marleen Gorris Antonia (Antonia’s Line, 1995)
  • Alison Maclean Jesus’ Son (1999)
  • Moufida Tlatli Saimt el Qusur (The Silences of the Palace, 1994)

Those are just some names that come to mind. There are directors I’ve missed off, and there are directors whose works I haven’t yet caught up with. In short, there is, I believe, a bold and inspiring future for films directed by women.


New Year’s Resolution

Not statistically significant. (Photo of Ava DuVernay.)
Not statistically significant. (Photo of Ava DuVernay.)

When a big awards ceremony happens, or nominations for a big awards ceremony are released, I read the articles about it. Of course I do. And I feel righteous indignation on reading these articles. But my ‘policy’ on this blog is not to write posts on the subject, on what was nominated and what egregiously omitted, on what won and what “should have” won — primarily because, to put it simply, I shouldn’t care (I’ve banged on about this before). After all, it’s not as if awards exist in some perfect vacuum of taste and correct opinion, and aren’t swayed by interest groups, lobbying and money. The only voices that would persuade me to take an interest in a film are individual ones, of people whose words and opinions I respect, not a group of old white guys picking from a more-or-less commercially sanctioned list of mainstream titles, however many offbeat choices show up, and however much the resulting lists may overlap with my own picks.

However, in the light of a certain Hollywood-centric awards ceremony‘s nominations, I thought now would be a good time to mention my New Year’s resolution. I have decided to try and see every film which gains a proper cinema release in 2015, which is either directed by or written by a woman. This is not because I think films written or directed by women are necessarily better than any other films (friends, I am not particularly looking forward to 50 Shades of Grey), but for other reasons which, in my opinion, are equally valid.

1. In most industrialised modes of cinematic production, women are systematically excluded from the key creative positions (indeed most positions aside from costumes and casting). Now this may not mean studio bosses are overtly basing all their hiring decisions on gender, but I would argue that they are doing so covertly at least. There are plenty of ingrained factors that result in women not gaining equal traction to their male counterparts at every rung on the ladder towards creative control, meaning that only one woman directed a film in the top 100 grossing films of 2014. As just one example, there’s certainly an ideology of the domineering macho director, which must affect not just decisions on who would be the right fit for a directing or writing gig, but probably trickles right down to affect the number of women who apply to film schools in the first place, or think they might be able to direct a film.

On the relatively rare occasions when women are allowed responsibility for the creative control over a film, they have to work much harder to maintain this. Just look at how many films directors like Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen have made (none of whom are particularly slapdash or half-assed in their working methods), compared to say Kathryn Bigelow or Jane Campion or… who? Name another major studio director who’s a woman and has made more than a couple of films. Maybe Sofia Coppola, but otherwise I’m coming up blank. When was the last time you saw a film by Amy Heckerling? Penny Marshall? Penelope Spheeris?

2. The films created by anyone who is in a minority within their own production system (and I’ve chosen films by women primarily because they surely represent a minority within every country’s filmmaking industry) are de facto of more interest, at least to me.

3. It can be useful to create arbitrary limitations that shape your choice, as it helps you to break out of unconscious patterns of behaviour. I almost certainly select what films I see based on matters of auteurism (I do have my favourite directors), positive critical reaction, the opinions and tastes of my friends, and frankly, positive marketing and hype must also play a role. So, making this resolution means I will exposed to films I’d otherwise overlook, or let slip by.

To this end, I’ve compiled a list of all the upcoming UK releases through to the end of February based on their creative personnel, and frankly, there are only 10 films on there (ten!, out of about 80). A couple are documentaries that I’m not even sure are securing much of an official release (maybe a token London screening prior to being shunted to DVD), one is an Australian compilation of short films, and, as far as I can tell, only four are gaining a national release (of which only Jupiter Ascending and Selma are actually directed by a woman or co-directed in the case of the Wachowskis, whereas the others just have at least one female writer credited).

So yes, sad to say, I think this resolution is not only worthwhile, but just a little bit necessary as a corrective. I shall hope to report back at the end of the year about what I’ve seen as a result!

UPDATE 2016: My post looking back at the progress of my 2015’s New Year’s Resolution can be found here.

Films about Filmmaking: Top 5 List

Films About FilmmakingAs ever, I’ve let my month of focusing on films about filmmaking peter out somewhat, but hello! Still here! I promised you a list and so a list I shall provide. (Thankfully, Wikipedia has its own useful list to jog my ever ineffectual memory.)

Of course, I should say a few words about the category. First off, these aren’t just films set in the world of filmmaking, of which there are plenty. In fact, at least one of the below isn’t even set in that world. No, these are films that engage with the issues around filmmaking, whether at the technical level or at a deeper more inchoate level of what it is to create a work of art, and all the moral and ethical issues this may involve, when you’re collaborating with and manipulating characters and lives (whether real or fictional).

What are your favourites? Do feel free to let me know!

The eyes have it in Irma Vep (1996)
The eyes have it in Irma Vep (1996)

In any case, here are mine:

Nema-ye Nazdik (Close-Up, 1990) There’s a strong strain of reflexivity about filmmaking that runs through a lot of the films to have come out of Iran since the 1980s. I might here mention Jafar Panahi’s Ayneh (The Mirror, 1997), which ostensibly begins like his big break-out arthouse hit of a few years before, Badkonake Sefid (The White Balloon, 1995), with a young girl on a quest, before the child actor throws a strop and walks away from the filming, and it swiftly becomes about Panahi’s own practice. There’s also Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Nun va Goldoon (A Moment of Innocence, 1995), in which he revisits a pivotal event from his youth but in such a way as to cast a light on the nature of representation on film. However, arguably the greatest of all Iranian films and — as its appearance here may suggest — one of the great self-reflexive films, is this pseudo-documentary by renowned auteur Abbas Kiarostami, made with his colleague Makhmalbaf. It’s starts off with a young man impersonating Makhmalbaf (though looking at the screenshots in retrospect, he could as well be an Ahmadinejad impersonator) to gain access to a rich family’s home, but again deals with the way that events become manipulated and changed by the presence of the camera in all kinds of fascinating and subtle ways.

Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963) Taking a different approach is this film of Godard’s (which I’ve already reviewed). It’s a beautifully shimmering modernist fantasia set in Italy, in which various different modes of film production come up against one another, and in which a couple’s relationship is refracted through the politics of filmmaking, in a typically sly and allusive way by Godard.

Showgirls (1995) I know this film has come in for a lot of derision over the years, and that it’s not even set in the film world, but it must surely count as one of the most caustic portrayals of showbusiness put down on film — and by extension, the kind of Hollywood filmmaking director Paul Verhoeven had been involved in for the past decade or so. It’s about young ingenues who come to the big city with a big dream, and the way in which that dream is brutally crushed and degraded into something ugly and exploitative. The acting is of course hammy in the extreme, but I’m not convinced that it was ever intended to be otherwise. Like the director’s subsequent Starship Troopers (1997), it takes the form of an Aaron Spelling TV soap opera of the era, with all the glossy production values you might expect (and some gloriously baroque widescreen cinematography), but filters it through industrial levels of toxic nastiness, including plenty of unsettling misogyny (which may partly derive from the Joe Eszterhas script, though it’s no less than you’d expect given the setting). However, I don’t think it’s excessive to see all that as part of the moribund culture the film is getting at, where everything and everyone is just an object to be manipulated. It is, needless to say, no feel-good movie, however it may have been repackaged since.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952) Another film I recently reviewed, but I’m pretty sure everyone knows this Hollywood classic. It does song and it does dance, and beneath it all it gives us a hint at how a film is put together, albeit in a glitzy and twinkly-toed way that effaces every bit as much as it enlightens.

Irma Vep (1996) This French film by director and former film critic Olivier Assayas sets itself in the rarefied milieu of French arthouse filmmaking, with a grumpy, reclusive auteur (the iconic Jean-Pierre Léaud) putting together a remake of a silent film serial, Les Vampires (1915), with a Hong Kong film star. This may all make it sound like the most airless bit of tedium, but by focusing on the role of Irma Vep and the actor Maggie Cheung, wrapping into the story her own baggage as a leading lady of Hong Kong action filmmaking, it becomes (for me at least) a delightful love letter to the cinema, to the kineticism of Hong Kong’s 1990s film industry, and to the dreams they inspire. It’s also got a great soundtrack.

And here also are a few honourable mentions, because I have the feeling they’re underappreciated:

A Cock and Bull Story (2005) Director Michael Winterbottom has collaborated with actor Steve Coogan many times, but this one is many ways the most delightful, being both a literary adaptation and a film about putting a literary adaptation on film, with Coogan being as amusingly self-deprecatory as he’s ever been.

Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, 2001) Documentaries about filmmakers that reveal their practice may show up as a bonus feature on every DVD of the past 10 years, but most are filler and fodder of the most disposable kind. However, there are a few films that deserve to rank up here, and many of them were made as part of the French TV series Cinéstes de notre temps, many of them strong works that stand up to viewing in a cinema. I reviewed this one about Pedro Costa recently, but one could also look to Chris Marker’s film about Andrei Tarkovsky Une journée d’Andrei Arsenevitch (One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich, 1999), or to Claire Denis’s Jacques Rivette, le veilleur (1990), amongst others. These are just some of the ones I’ve seen, and all are excellent. Speaking of Marker, and although not made for this series, his film about Russian silent filmmaker Aleksandr Medvedkin, Le Tombeau d’Alexandre (The Last Bolshevik, 1992) is also a fantastic documentary, with Marker’s lightly allusive and playful touch all over it.

Stories We Tell (2012) One of my favourite films I saw last year, actor/director Sarah Polley’s film about her family is ostensibly a personal memoir film (another subgenre of filmmaking), but as her family are actors, it has a lot of thoughtful ideas about the way personal history can be represented on screen. As a result it moves far beyond being ‘merely’ a documentary to a sort of meta-text about what it means to make a documentary. Or something like that. In any case, I can recommend it.

Gods and Monsters (1998) Finally, this story of the making of James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) has Ian McKellen as the gay filmmaker, and Brendan Fraser as his muse, and it’s all very enjoyably put together.

Talking Point: Awards

It's that time of year again...
It’s that time of year again…

I started this blog in March last year, so just missed out on all the discussion that naturally revolves around the annual ritual of film industry awards ceremonies. Most prominent among these is of course the Hollywood-centric Academy Awards, but there are plenty of others that also naturally want to look back at this time of year — for example, the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the New York Film Critics’ Circle Awards, the list goes on almost interminably. Just to be clear right upfront, it is everyone’s right to enjoy and even be inspired by awards ceremonies should they wish; what I’ve written below is merely my own (grumpy) opinion.

Continue reading “Talking Point: Awards”

Talking Point: Cinema Seating Preferences

The Electric Cinema in Notting Hill is certainly posh, but where would you sit?
The Electric Cinema in Notting Hill is certainly posh, but where would you sit?

There’s a wide variety of seating quality, I’m not going to dispute that. I’ve led with a photo of London’s Electric Cinema, and though I haven’t been there, there are plenty which are similar around this town, obviously in the more affluent areas. I’ve even been to some, and enjoyed the comfort and quality (if not the price: that’s a whole other post).

However, whatever the quality of the seating (and for the most part there never feels like there’s enough legroom), you probably have a preference over where to sit in the auditorium. I never quite get why some people, having paid the increasingly ridiculous sums of money required and cleared out their evenings to enjoy a movie in the cinema, would want to sit near the back. Surely it just reduces the whole experience to something akin to TV but with more people between you and the screen?

I admit, some films demand a bit of distance. I found myself feeling a little too close to Now You See Me, if only because that film seemed to use a lot of swiftly-moving camera set-ups and close-ups on faces (it got a bit dizzying). Some cinemas also have the front rows practically under the screen, and if you’re having to crane your neck back to see, that can get unpleasant. And if there are subtitles, it can help to be a bit further back so you don’t have to move your eyes around too much (yet always trying to avoid having anyone’s head in your way in those cases).

But personally I like to have as few people as possible between me and the film; my ideal is centre of the third row (depending on the auditorium; I’d estimate I prefer around three metres from the screen). Mostly it’s just a matter of wanting to get lost in the entertainment. But does it matter, or am I just being superstitious?

Talking Point: Sequels

So many sequels, but how many are good?
So many sequels, but how many are good?

Sequels are certainly not a new thing. Even if you wouldn’t call The Odyssey a sequel to The Iliad, the idea of taking the same characters and recycling them in a new plot following the success of the first outing goes back a very long way, certainly long before Hollywood or even the movie business got involved.

But just looking at last year’s top grossing films, it’s not hard to see why the industry is so reliant on sequels. Those that aren’t directly sequels are either ‘reboots’ or part of a larger franchise (for example, Marvel’s The Avengers). Even many of the ones which are stand-alone were either consciously created as the first in a series (The Hunger Games) or at least have the potential to be sequelised (Pixar are either being ingenuous or very sweet to suggest that they don’t create films in order to make sequels, but it wouldn’t surprise me if a Brave 2 happens).

This is a heavy reliance on sequels, and though they’ve always featured prominently in the charts going back in time, it seems to be more and more the case. So how does this affect the moviegoer? Garrett over on Cinema Train did a similar post asking whether movies were getting worse, and I think he’s right in his conclusion. Sure it can seem lazy to rehash the same characters and plotlines, but then this has been done for years in all kinds of films (not just sequels) under the guise of hommage, or in-joke, or (more often) just brazen contempt for the intelligence of the audience.

This doesn’t negate the fact that there are plenty of good films being made around the world. Even some of those sequels aren’t entirely worthless (for my own part, I found Fast Five to be deeper and more interesting than previous films in the same series). In some ways, the sequel at its best can be a way to open out characters and storylines — find greater depth of characterisation and richness of worldview — in a way that has always been the strength of episodic television.

So, do you think that every passing year of sequels and reboots represents a new low point for the art of film? Or is there anything good that can come from a sequel?

Talking Point: Film Discussions

Anyone who’s been to a film with a friend or friends and hung around afterwards to talk about it knows — as much as those of us who write about films on the internet — that some films are easier and more interesting to talk about than others. There’s the way we experience a movie when we are actually in the cinema auditorium, and then there’s the way it grows or shrinks or changes upon further reflection afterwards.

Tom Cruise falls through a plot hole in Mission: Impossible (1996).
Tom Cruise falls through a plot hole in Mission: Impossible (1996).

And it’s not just good movies that provoke good discussions: some of my favourite film discussions have been around confusing, misguided or just plain stupid films. I still remember many happy hours spent in a coffee shop after seeing Mission: Impossible back in 1996, talking incredulously with my best friend about the many gaping plot holes in what was probably not an objectively great film (though my assessment of it is clouded by that fondly-recalled post-film experience). I spent a bit of time recently talking in similar terms about Star Trek Into Darkness. In fact, sometimes it’s the really ‘good’ films that leave you with the least to say.

The fact is, though, that our assessment of films comes not just from what we see on the screen, but from how we grapple with them afterwards. To take one example, about 10 years ago I had the opportunity to watch all of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle (1994-2002), totalling around seven hours of avant-garde cinema that was at times breathtakingly visual but for long stretches tediously and frustratingly opaque. However, the last film was followed by a lengthy Q&A with the director, during which some of the ideas presented by the films started to coalesce, even make some semblance of sense. As I didn’t write it down at the time, I will probably never now recapture that fleeting connection with Barney’s meaning, but it is certain that without the chance for that reflection, I would have written that time off as seven wasted hours of my life.

Clearly there are other films over the years that I’ve not connected with, that might easily have been improved by further discussion had I seen those films with friends (or had they been followed by a director Q&A), just as there are ‘bad’ films which I also hold inordinate fondness for due to their extra-cinematic associations.

Are there any films that you may have disliked while watching them, but which improved on further reflection (or vice versa)? I’m pretty sure, for example, that if it hadn’t been for trying to write a review of it, I would have had a much lower opinion of Spring Breakers, a film I found pretty boring to actually sit through.

Talking Point: 3D

3D glasses
The classic design of 3D glasses.

When I was a kid back in the 1980s, 3D was considered a ridiculous novelty idea that would every so often resurface when some TV channel or cinema would put one on for a one-off showing, usually requiring a tie-in promotion to distribute cheap cardboard glasses so that people could enjoy the show.

For some reason, and despite my best efforts to resist it in the initial stages, it seems to be a properly big commercial thing now. Every effects-laden tentpole blockbuster or animated release is put out in a 3D version, whether or not it was intended to be shown that way when made.

What I don’t understand is quite why it has taken hold to the extent it has. Every film I’ve seen in 3D makes me feel like I’m watching cut-outs being waved about in front of background scenery. Even when the parallax layering is done well, there’s still a sense that everything is slightly miniaturised somehow, as if you are even further removed from the action on screen (which, as someone who generally prefers to sit closer to the screen in the auditorium, is not a feeling I find particularly enjoyable). And then of course there’s the brightness of the image, the way that everything seen through 3D glasses is darker and murkier.

I’d like to be clear that I’m not saying people are wrong to like 3D, I just don’t understand the appeal. I think my favourite so far has been the animated film Wreck-It Ralph (2012), though I’d still have preferred it in 2D. However, I concede I’ve only seen four 3D films at the cinema in recent years.

So why do 3D films appeal? And what are some examples of really good use of 3D in cinema?

Talking Point: Ratings System

I’ve been writing my film reviews on this site for about two months now, and as I’ve been reading and writing, I’ve had second thoughts about my ratings system. Currently I used a fairly standard scale that goes up to five stars.

However, I’ve found in practice that I’m effectively using a four star scale, given that I’ve reserved five stars for older films I’ve seen more than once, basically as a way of indicating they deserve a place on my ‘favourite ever’ films list. I feel like I’m not really being very generous, and also giving people glancing at my reviews an unfair impression of how much I liked a film, when four stars is the highest rating I’m willing to assign to a new release film.

This all makes me wonder if I shouldn’t really just bump all my ratings up by one star, and leave a separate category for those films that make my ‘favourite films’ list? Time Out London for a while in the mid-2000s adopted a rating scale that went up to six stars — which is not something I want to adopt, as frankly it was weird and distracting — but certainly some kind of separate indicator of ‘classic’ status (probably the tweaked red background five stars rating I’ve been using so far).

Do any of you have any opinions about star ratings, perhaps gleaned from your own experiences of writing and reading reviews? I don’t want to entirely dispense with them, as they’re a useful way for me to gauge how much I liked films I’ve seen and categorise them accordingly (given my memory is so terrible). But I feel like I could make some changes…

UPDATE 9 May 2013: I’ve decided not to make any changes to my rating scale. I like having a level which is generally out of reach of most movies I review. These are just gut reaction ratings, and in my gut, two stars is a sufficient rating for a film I enjoyed but which was capable of being more.

UPDATE 21 May 2013: I’ve changed my mind again, and have added half-star gradations. I’ve also updated some of my past reviews to reflect this change.

UPDATE 19 May 2015: I’ve become disillusioned with the gradations of the star-rating system, so I’ve implemented a simpler traffic-lights based system, using a green tick for ‘recommended’ (two for ‘must-see’), an amber light for ‘possibly worth seeing’, and a red cross for ‘avoid’.